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Another year in Australian politics has been captured in ink by cartoonists. They faithfully recorded the national mood as Australians returned from their Christmas holidays and were greeted with the news that the country was sliding into recession. In February, bushfires swept across Victoria, killing 173 people. Debates raged over education, health and Indigenous issues. While Kevin Rudd struggled with the Global Financial Crisis, Malcolm Turnbull struggled with being opposition leader. For a brief moment all of these issues were pushed off the front page as a second-hand Mazda ute transfixed the nation's media. Towards the end of the year there was a collective sigh of relief as it became clear that Australia had avoided a recession. All of these controversies unfolded while the world waited to see if its political leaders would reach an agreement on how to deal with climate change.

This then was the fare for cartoonists to digest over the past 12 months. As the government confronted the spreading global economic recession, cartoonists were challenged to find the appropriate visual metaphor to depict the infinitely complex workings of the economy. In one of his classic cartoons, Bruce Petty captures 150 years of world economic development in a single A4 page. In Petty's sprawling cartoon the world's financial system is depicted as a crazed machine fuelled by money. A small confused figure can be seen in the corner of the cartoon staring in wonder as this amazing machine consumes the world.

Cartoonists also recorded how Australia responded to the Black Saturday bushfires. Alan Moir's cartoon 'Olympians' depicts the intensity of the fires and the heroic but futile attempts to contain them. Mark Knight, who witnessed the fires firsthand in Gippsland, captured the camaraderie of exhausted firefighters resting after the battle. Knight's cartoon also alludes to mobile phone footage, which circulated on television and the internet, of a fireman sharing a bottle of water with a koala who had survived the fires. John Spooner's image of the ruins of a house in a burnt-out landscape – with the original house reflected in the water of the property's dam  highlighted the destruction and loss.

Our political leaders also provided fodder for cartoonists. While Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard continued to be the public face of the government, cartoonists also focused on some of the leading personalities from the front bench. Sturt Krygsman depicted Lindsay Tanner, the Minister for Finance, as an unhappy clown, neatly capturing the government's desire to be simultaneously up-beat and cautious about the prospects for the Australian economy. Pat Campbell drew John Faulkner as the Terminator, reflecting the challenges awaiting the new Minister for Defence. On the other side of politics, cartoonists focused on the trials and tribulations of Malcolm Turnbull. The temptation to depict the former merchant banker in a top hat and tails proved irresistible for many cartoonists.

The country's relationship with China was also dissected. The benefits of Australia's resources boom, driven by a rapidly growing Chinese economy, were contrasted with fears of the emergence of China as the dominant power in the region. The detention of Australian Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu by Chinese authorities provided a focus for commentary. Ward O'Neill invoked the famous image of the 'Mongolian octopus', originally drawn by Phil May in the Bulletin in 1886, to remind us that fear of China has a long history in Australia.

As the year drew to a close the debate over the government's desire to establish an Emissions Trading Scheme returned to centre stage. Cartoonists worked hard to reveal the motivations of politicians and the consequences of inaction on climate change. Andrew Weldon provided a particularly pessimistic forecast of the outcome of the battle, depicting the policy debate over carbon trading as a wrestling match between politicians driven by short-term goals on one side and the unstoppable forces of nature on the other.

While, ultimately, 2009 proved to be a better year for Australia than many had forecast, it still ended with a sense of foreboding. Fears of a recession were replaced with fears of growing inflation and rising interest rates. The government's need to stimulate the economy was transformed into a desire for fiscal discipline. Global warming remains the major challenge facing governments across the world. Whatever the debate, cartoonists continue to retain their front row seats and provide a wonderful visual archive of Australian history.

Guy Hansen
Exhibition curator


Cartoons are a highly visual medium and to improve website accessibility we have created alternative or alt text for each of the cartoons in the online version of Behind the Lines 2009.

Read text-only version of Behind the Lines 2009

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